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Saturday, January 14, 2012

When informed decisions go awry

Making investments with money you don't have and with information you should not be privy to is both morally and legally wrong

LAST year, a young entrepreneur turned property investor lost his business outfit. Although his monthly income fluctuated somewhat month-to-month, he was able to get loans from the banks to finance his purchases, which he had incrementally amassed to about 10 over the years.

He was able to have a selection of properties because of the nature of his work which allowed him to source and research the sector and related industries. He was also a quick and adept student of the market and its trends, because like many Malaysians, he was interested in bricks and mortar as an investment instrument. It is uncertain how he will pay for all of them today.

Because of Malaysians' great love for properties, there is the tendency to buy multiple units, each in succession when the previous purchase is not yet fully paid for. While there is nothing wrong with this strategy some of us are more comfortable with properties than with other forms of investment instruments these “assets” can become a financial millstone. Quite a number of Malaysians bought multiple units at one go, sometimes in the same project because they have faith in the developer. Or they buy into the same segment, for example, condominiums.

If one has the means to hold on to these investments over the long term, there may not be an issue. The danger of multiple property purchases and ownership comes during a down cycle.

A couple of years ago when the property prices were steadily moving up, Malaysians' enchantment with the property market resulted in various courses being offered by property experts.

Nearly, if not all of them, were millionaires because of earlier property investments and they were offering courses to teach how one can become rich, like themselves.

However, the scenario then and the scenario today has changed drastically. It may not be possible to use the same strategy they had used. Like any investment, and at any one point in time, there are risks involved. But over and above taking a risk, there is something known as moral hazard. When risks become too high, the action taken by an investor may be hazardous and the probability of failure becomes very high. An action becomes morally hazardous when an investor makes a decision to do something assuming that he has a safety net.

Lately, there was a case where a spouse had bought two luxury condominiums with money that did not belong to him. Because properties at the time enjoyed high returns, he bought multiple units in Malaysia and Singapore. When the case came to light, he stressed that his wife, a public figure, is not involved.

A couple may not be a single entity from the legal standpoint. However, the reality is that the action of one will have a bearing on the other.

This was clearly seen early this week when the chairman of the Swiss National Bank, equivalent to our Bank Negara, resigned. Less than a week ago, he had denied any wrongdoing in a currency scandal that involved his wife.

The Financial Times reported that Philipp Hildebrand's wife had in September 2011 bought US$500,000 before the Swiss National Bank, headed by her husband, imposed a ceiling on the appreciating Swiss francs to halt its rise. Because Swiss francs was appreciating so quickly, the greenback became “cheap” by comparison. The move by the central bank sent the Swiss francs down sharply. She sold the dollars one month later. She bought the US dollar cheap and sold high.

Hildebrand had earlier rejected calls to resign. When he did, he said: “I came to the conclusion that it's not possible for me to deliver a definite proof that my wife requested the currency transation without my knowledge.”

His wife said she failed her husband because she had not considered the perception of a “conflict of interest.”

After his resignation, he asked rhetorically: “Can you live a dollar lifestyle, or a partly dollar lifestyle, like ours, and still be a central bank governor?”

That is an interesting question. It is a question of self examination that comes to each of us, at one point or another, sometimes many times over.

Assistant news editor Thean Lee Cheng ponders: Should the action of a spouse have far reaching consequences on the “innocent” half? Should one profit from one's vocation because of some privileged information?

By The Star

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